Academia can’t be limited to 26 weeks


Australian Financial Review

Despite students living in a 24/7 world, the academic calendar remains firmly rooted in the past, dictating that students can learn for only half the year. It is an anomaly which makes little sense in today’s world and should change. Faster learning would reduce student’s living costs and get them into the workforce more quickly – boosting national income. It would also lower the costs of education provision.

The 26 week academic year has its origins from centuries past when young able-bodied men were needed at home to help with the spring and summer harvest. Australia inherited this pattern from the United Kingdom when establishing our first universities in the 1850s.  The short academic year was still relevant at the time as agriculture was labour intensive and a dominant part of the economy.

Today, however, the short academic year has little relevance to our economic structures. Many students take advantage of the long summer break to do internships at target companies, but frequently these are for four or eight weeks only. The rest is typically taken up with low-skilled jobs, holidays or idleness.

When only one or two percent of school graduates went on to further education, studying for only half the year was of little consequence.  But with almost one in twenty-five Australians in higher education and billions of dollars tied up in university assets, the pace of learning matters.

A small reduction in the aggregate time taken to complete a degree would boost workforce participation and translate to a significant increase in national income. Further, it would reduce costs to both the university and the student. Universities could achieve better asset utilisation while students living costs would be commensurately lower.

There are two ways that learning could be faster.  First, from universities offering more than just 26 weeks of tuition.  The school year goes for 40 weeks, but only two of the 39 universities offer more than two 13 week semesters as their standard program.

The digital world allows this transition to year-long learning (or at least extended learning) more easily.  In pure online courses, students can start their degrees when they want and study for as many weeks of the year as they would like. In all courses, using more online materials enables greater flexibility around time-tabling to suit the demands and requirements of students.

Second, learning could be faster by enabling students to receive credentials based on what is learnt, rather than time elapsed.  Current regulations specify ‘volume of learning’ as the key requirements for a degree, rather than what knowledge is acquired. For example, a bachelors degree is 3 to 4 years based on the time to deliver a course on campus with two short semesters per year.

In the United States, there is a shift towards outcomes based accreditation of degrees, allowing the obtaining of knowledge and a degree to be done more quickly.  Western Governors University is the most prominent example of this.  It allows students to sit exams whenever they believe they have mastered the requirements, which have been established in conjunction with professional bodies and employers.  This creates an incentive for those students who want to work harder during the year to master the content more quickly. 

Assessing competencies rather than ‘volume of learning’ already occurs to some extent in Australia where universities will provide credit for previous experience.  It could be extended further.

An additional benefit of faster learning would be its cost attractiveness to a broader segment of the international student market. With the high dollar, studying in Australia is now about 20 percent more expensive than studying in the United States, (according to Boston Consulting Group), contributing to a loss of market share. Faster learning may not reduce tuition fees, but would reduce living expenses, which, for international students, comprise about 50 percent of the overall cost of completing a degree.

There are several innovations being trialled across Australian campuses to improve the efficiency of learning. However, there is a need to address barriers which are hindering further innovation and broader adoption. The most important of these is to amend, or at least clearly interpret, the ‘volume of learning’ requirements in the Australian Qualification Framework.  The regulations governing accreditation also need to be examined with a view to enabling more outcomes based accreditation.

The current academic calendar evolved in response to a national need in an agrarian era. Clearly, our national needs are different now, and there is a need to adapt again. It is challenging to do so, but if we get it right, then students, universities and the economy can all be better off.

Alan Tudge is the Federal Member for Aston and Chairman of the Coalition’s Online Higher Education Working Group

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